Revolutionary Road

Believe it or not, I was excited when Titanic came out in 1997. Having worked on a documentary about the ship a few years earlier, I was among the first to catch it when it was released. At the time I also was a fan of both its young leads: I was impressed by Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and by Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures and Sense and Sensibility. So try to put yourself in my shoes when, halfway through Titanic, during the scene where Jack teaches Rose how to spit, I literally said to myself, "THIS MOVIE'S TERRIBLE!" And I felt that the two stars had no chemistry.

Clearly, millions disagreed with me – at the time, anyway; now it's hip to hate Titanic – so it was inevitable that DiCaprio and Winslet, who go on and on about being best friends in real life, would work together again. I was hoping that it might be something like Woody Allen's Titanic, where they'd play a pair of befuddled survivors. Instead, we get them as a morbidly unhappy married couple in 1955 Connecticut, which is what Revolutionary Road is about.

The movie opens with April (Winslet) and Frank (DiCaprio) meeting at a bohemian party in New York. Cut to seven years later, where April and Frank are now married and living in the burbs with two kids. April has finally accepted that her dreams of becoming an actress are not about to come true, as she apparently has no talent, and Frank is stuck in a dead-end sales job in Manhattan. They drink, they smoke, they argue, they cheat on each other, until finally April decides what they need is a change of scenery, specifically a move to Paris.

Surprise: things don't quite work out as planned.

Revolutionary Road is based on the 1961 novel by the late Richard Yates, who never saw much success in his own life. I haven't read the book, but the movie seems faithful to Yates's voice, or at least to his literary dialogue. His cries against the oppressiveness of conformity ring loud and clear. But whether it's the adaptation, the direction, or the actors' personalities, any of Yates's themes about the challenges of staying vibrant and alive in the face of stultifying comfort are negated by the shallowness of his two main characters: Frank comes across as a well-meaning dope, and April appears to be mentally ill.

I have the same problem with these two stars that I do with most actors who make it big in their teens: because they were praised early on for their latent talent, they never pursue proper training because they don't think they need it. As a result, their work suffers. While Winslet and DiCaprio are known for their professionalism, they remain uncreative actors who mostly make obvious choices in their scene work. What's original and nuanced about many classically trained thespians is not on display here. (Notably, neither actor has yet done any live theatre, which usually separates the pros from the poseurs.)

Similarly, director Sam Mendes – Winslet's husband – made it much too big, much too fast, winning an Oscar for his debut film American Beauty. As with his cast, there is an "emperor's new clothes" sense about his work – that his actual output doesn't deserve all the acclaim.

There are a lot of problems with Revolutionary Road, including supporting actor Michael Shannon as neighbor Kathy Bates's insane son, whose presence as The Guy Who Speaks All the Dark Truths the Other Characters Are Unwilling to Admit comes across as a plot contrivance, and his performance is hammy to boot. There are some good things, too: Mendes's pedigree allows him to work with the best craftspeople, so there is beautiful cinematography from the brilliant Roger Deakins, a good score from Thomas Newman, and rich, realistic production design by Kristi Zea.

But the strident "Acting with a capital A" from Winslet and DiCaprio doesn't measure up to the talent behind the camera, and for a film that relies so entirely on the performances of its two leads, that's unforgivable. And they still don't have any chemistry (though that may be the point of the movie). DiCaprio creates more sparks with the quirky-looking Zoe Kazan, in a small role as a secretary he has a fling with. Zoe Kazan comes from Hollywood royalty, but she is still an experienced Broadway actress with a BA in theater from Yale. Here's to more screen roles for Zoe Kazan.